Rap it in a GridMay 25, 2011 By Nishant Kothary
I am currently reading Decoded by Jay-Z. This passage stopped me dead in my tracks last night (it’s a little long, but worth it):
It’s been said that the thing that makes rap special, that makes it different both from pop music and from written poetry, is that it’s built around two kinds of rhythm. The first kind of rhythm is the meter. In poetry, the meter is abstract, but in rap, the meter is something you literally hear: it’s the beat. The beat in a song never stops, it never varies. No matter what other sounds are on the track, even if it’s a Timbaland production with all kinds of offbeat fills and electronics, a rap song is usually built bar by bar, four-beat measure by four-beat measure. It’s like time itself, ticking off relentlessly in a rhythm that never varies and never stops.
When you think about it like that, you realize the beat is everywhere, you just have to tap into it. You can bang it out on a project wall or an 808 drum machine or just use your hands. You can beatbox it with your mouth. But the beat is only one half of a rap song’s rhythm. The other is the flow. When a rapper jumps on a beat, he adds his own rhythm. Sometimes you stay in the pocket of the beat and just let the rhythm land on the square so that the beat and flow become one. But sometimes the flow chops up the beat, breaks the beat into smaller units, forces in multiple syllables and repeated sounds and internal rhythms, or hangs a drunken leg over the last bap and keeps going, sneaks out of that bitch. The flow isn’t like time, it’s like life. It’s like a heartbeat or the way you breathe, it can jump, speed up, slowdown, stop, or pound right through like a machine.
The first thing that came to mind: grids.
To most designers (including me), grids are inevitable. They’re the “Duh!” of design. In a world where caffeinated rituals are performed in hopes of genius solutions, grids provide security. They use math and divinations of natural phenomena, like the golden ratio, to provide an ordered approach to solving problems.
Simply put: grids offer what’s most elusive in design: predictability.
But when it comes to life—the place where design solutions prove their worth—predictability is a double-edged sword. And this couldn’t be truer on the Web. Users want a predictable experience. When something is a link, users want to know it without having to think about it. A link should behave like other links.
But users demand that these expected experiences simultaneously be delightful. For most people, this idea is somewhere on a tangent, living on the opposite end of where non-spontaneous Mr. Predictable does.
The reality is, a grid makes the act of solving design problems seem predictable, but says nothing for supplying the appropriate design solution.
The grid is akin to the beat. But it’s hardly ever the flow, which is the true design solution. We still don’t have a recipe for predictably nailing the true design solution, but I have a theory about this.
But, I digress. The real point is: like the beat, the grid is simply a means to an end.
Jay-Z says it best:
If the beat is time, flow is what we do with that time, how we live through it. The beat is everywhere, but every life has to find its own flow.